The House of Representatives of the Congress of the Philippines recently passed on second reading a proposed law which essentially recognizes annulments obtained from a church or religion. It also allows for the registration of the final decree of annulment or dissolution within 30 days from issuance.  Please click here for the full text of the proposed bill.

Authored by female members of the House of Representatives, the intention was to make annulments easier by directing people to file with the church , instead of with the courts. But will this really make annulments easier and faster? Maybe not.

1) Can I now avail of the benefits of House Bill No. 6779?

IT IS NOT YET A LAW. House Bill No. 6779 which passed second reading recently is only a proposed legislation. It still has to go to the Senate, undergo debates, conference committee reconciliations, and most likely amendments before it becomes a law. Judging by the history of similar proposed laws in the past on divorce and nullity,  the Senate is a  more hawkish body when it comes to the Constitution.  As it stands now, the only legal way to have your marriage dissolved and be single again is by way of a court annulment or declaration of nullity of marriage.

2) Can the Catholic church and other religions  handle the avalanche of annulment cases if the law is passed?

In 2015 , right after the Pope announced simplifying the process of annulment and making it free of charge,  Archbishop Oscar Cruz who is a frequent resource person and  recognized authority on  Catholic church annulments having served as Judicial Vicar of the National Appelate Matrimonial Tribunal of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, noted that  at the time they were receiving an average of 40 cases per year which had since  increased to 60 cases for just one month in 2015. In contrast, court annulments reached a peak of more than 11,000 in 2014 . The average since 2001 is somewhere between 8 thousand to 9 thousand cases.   Bishop Cruz already noted then  that the process of church annulment took an average of one and a half years which is roughly the average time for processing a court annulment. If it took the Catholic church that long to decide an average of 40 cases per year, one can only imagine how long it will take them to resolve the avalanche of annulment cases (say 10,000 cases per year)  that would be filed with the church.

3)Would it be easier to get a church annulment instead of a court annulment?

THE PROCESS OF CHURCH ANNULMENT IS A MORE COMPLICATED PROCESS. The Committee which drafted the Family Code of the Philippines in the late 80’s were unanimous in acknowledging the fact that the circumstances which would constitute the ground of psychological incapacity was taken from Catholic Canon Law. This resulted in the notion that civil or court annulments would be just as difficult to obtain under the law then. The Supreme Court of the Philippines has since passed rules of procedure and rendered case law which has largely simplified the process of court annulments. If the objective of the proposed law was to have people file cases with the church in the hope that annulments would be easier to obtain in church, many may be in for a rude awakening. We are not ourselves experts on church annulments, but if what information is available in the public domain  is accurate, the process is a lot more complicated than a court annulment. In the words of Archbishop Cruz himself:

“He explained that an annulment case begins in the diocese where judges decide whether or not a marriage is null and void. The decision is then sent to the Appellate Matrimonial Tribunal for review.

“If the tribunal agrees with the first instance, it’s done. The marriage is effectively declared null and void,” said Cruz.

The case goes to Rome if a Court of Appeals disagrees with the decision of the first instance or the diocese. “That takes a lot of time,” said Archbishop Cruz.

A case usually takes one and a half years to be resolved, except for some cases, like if the couple realizes that they are first cousins.

X x x x “

Essentially, the process is regularly two stages starting with the matrimonial tribunal at the level of the diocese which is elevated to the Appellate Matrimonial Tribunal, and possibly to Rome . The court process though is normally a one step process resulting in a decision by a Regional Trial Court which occasionally is appealed by the Office of the Solicitor General if the case warrants the appeal. According to the Office of the Solicitor General, about 94% of annulment cases are granted by Philippine courts. It is difficult to imagine the Catholic Church topping this percentage considering its objection to the rate of  annulment of marriages in recent years and its fervent opposition to a divorce law in the Philippines. This much was echoed by the President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, thus:

“x x x x

Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the conference, clarified that while the pope has opted to simplify the process for the declaration of marriages to be null and void, “the doctrine about the sacredness of marriage and family life is unchanged”.

“[The pope]’s new apostolic letter reaches out to those Catholics who suffer quietly from the bond and obligations of what they thought was a marriage, when the truth is there was no marriage to speak of from the very start because the requirements for the valid reception of matrimony were not present,” said Archbishop Villegas in a statement.

He said the pope wants to reach out tenderly to those who suffer from invalid marriages.

“The matrimonial tribunals must be brought closer to the people,” said Archbishop Villegas, adding that each diocese has been mandated to have such marriage courts.

“The services of the Church must be more accessible to the people. The process to receive those blessings of new peace for those who have suffered long must be simplified,” he said.

Those who are hoping that their irreconcilable differences with their spouses would suffice to get a Catholic church annulment should think twice about a church annulment instead of a civil annulment.

4) Would it be cheaper to get a church annulment than a civil or court annulment?

This is the big unknown. While the Pope has famously declared that  church annulments should be free of charge, the preparation of the documentation and the process would seem to require legal expertise. There must be only a handful of canon lawyers in the Philippines, most of whom most likely are not members of the Philippine Bar. In the case of the Muslim Code of Personal Laws (PD 1083) which created Sharia Courts , lawyers practicing  there are regulated by the Supreme Court. How do you now license and regulate lawyers for all types of religions ? It would be an administrative nightmare , to say the least. In the wake of the confusion, the process would be full of unregulated legal charlatans who would further scam the poor OFW of her hard earned money. In the end, the entire exercise would likely be one expensive mess.

5) What are the grounds of a Catholic church annulment?

The grounds for annulment of a marriage under Catholic Canon Law collectively would not be a walk in the park for many people.  A few of the  interesting  ones are:

  1. a) Error regarding marital indissolubility that determined the will (Canon 1099) You or your spouse married believing that civil law had the power to dissolve marriage and that remarriage was acceptable after civil divorce.
  2. b) Lack of new consent during convalidation (Canons 1157,1160) After your civil marriage, you and your spouse participated in a Catholic ceremony and you or your spouse believed that (1) you were already married, (2) the Catholic ceremony was merely a blessing, and (3) the consent given during. the Catholic ceremony had no real effect.
  3. c) Total willful exclusion of marriage (Canon 1101, sec. 2) You or your spouse did not intend to contract marriage as the law of the Catholic Church understands marriage. Rather, the ceremony was observed solely as a means of obtaining something other than marriage itself, e.g., to obtain legal status in the country or to legitimize a child.

So , if you believed in the law which allowed for the annulment of marriage as all Filipino citizens are supposed to do , you are not qualified for any church annulment under the Canons of the Catholic Church?

For a   list of the possible grounds, PLEASE CLICK HERE.

6) What happens to the status of the children if we get a church or religious annulment? How about support and the properties of our marriage?

Another contentious consequence of the law is the treatment of custody, legitimacy , and the properties of the marriage. The law simply states that it would be agreed upon by the parties, but if not agreed upon that it would be determined under the Family Code of the Philippines . It would be hard to imagine, for instance the Catholic Church being a party to a litigation involving the legitimacy of the children of marriages of multiple families nor of the property relations of the spouses. What would conceivably happen would be the duplication of proceedings in court where these collateral issues to the annulment would have to be resolved. In other words,  while currently there is only one principal process for the annulment of marriage and the custody, support, and property issues that go with it, the proposed law would effectively result in the filing of multiple cases to likewise resolve these issues, and consequently multiply the cost and the time necessary to not only put an end to the marriage but put to rest all the other highly litigious aspects thereof.

7) If House Bill 6779 becomes a law, would it be constitutional?

The Constitution of the Philippines prohibits the passing of any law which  establishes any religion (NON ESTABLISHMENT CLAUSE)  or  limits the free exercise thereof (FREE EXERCISE CLAUSE).  There appears to be issues with both constitutional precepts relative to the proposed legislation.

The language of the law refers to marriages which are performed by so called “established” religions. Exactly what these are is not in the law. If the Explanatory Note provides any clue, it would seem to name the Catholic church as the “established” religion referred to in the law. While it does mention rabbis and presiding officers of a religion in the same breath as priests, it fails to define what is an established religion in the purview of the law. What if Juan Dela Cruz decides to put up a religion, performs a slew of marriages, and then entertains petitions for annulments of those marriages. Would the Juan Dela Cruz Church of Kamuning qualify as an established religion which can validly  annul marriages. If not, can the law then be interpreted as impairing the exercise of the followers of that religion and puts in a preferred category the Catholic Church, Protestant churches,  and other traditionally established churches—-in violation of both provisions of the Constitution.

Besides, it would be difficult to regulate the religions that would expectedly sprout because of the new law. It would be fodder for abuse and scams.



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